Legislature Weighs Child Sex Abuse Law

by Daysha Eaton on March 25, 2014

Erin Merryn testifying in Pennsylvania in September 2012.

Erin Merryn testifying in Pennsylvania in September 2012.

This week, Erin Merryn is coming from Illinois to Alaska to promote a law that provides age-appropriate sexual abuse education to children in public schools. Erin’s Law, named after the 29-year-old from Illinois, has been passed in 11 states and is pending in 26 others, including Alaska. This story talks frankly about sexual abuse and rape.

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A neighbor began sexually abusing Erin Merryn when she was six years old.

“I was abused from ages six to eight and a half, repeatedly abused by the neighbor up the street who was my best friend’s uncle who lived in the home. And what started off as fondling turned to rape as a six-and-half-year-old. And like I said – didn’t know how to speak up and tell and we moved only to wake up at age 11 to now a family member abusing me. And that continued until I was 13,” said Merryn.

Merryn finally told a trusted adult after she found out her little sister was also being sexually abused. When she was a senior in high school she published a book about her experience. When she was 25, she made it her mission to give kids the voice she never had as a child, campaigning for Erin’s Law. The law requires age-appropriate child sexual abuse training in grades K-12 in public schools. It passed in Illinois in 2013.  She says it’s important in every state because of national statistics that show one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused.

“In America alone there are 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Four million of those are kids.” said Merryn.

But only one in 10 tells their story, says Merryn.  In Alaska, experts say the percentage of children who are sexually abused is likely higher. Nearly two- thousand children reported sexual abuse in Alaska in 2013. State Representative Geran Tarr, who represents the neighborhoods of Airport Heights and Mountain View in Anchorage, is sponsoring House Bill 233, the Alaska version of Erin’s law to try and change those numbers. Tarr discovered the law while working on issues related to family health and safe communities and realized it could help stop the persistent problem of sexual abuse in Alaska.

“Our rates put us in the top five for child sexual abuse and it’s such a life-changing and devastating problem that I became very motivated to work on this issue and look for opportunities where we could protect children and prevent that next generation of children from experiencing child sexual abuse,” said Tarr.

House Bill 233 would provide child sexual abuse training to empower children to speak up if something inappropriate happens, Tarr says, and train teachers and trusted adults to recognize signs that a child is being abused as well as help students out of unsafe situations. Tarr says the law would be a game changer because the training would reach more than 90 percent of Alaska’s youth who attend public schools and the adults who spend a lot of time with them.

“We’ve often been on the reactionary end of this problem. This problem being more broadly domestic violence and sexual assault. So we’ve been dealing with it through the court system. We’ve been dealing with it through victim services and domestic violence shelters. This is an opportunity to really try and get in on the prevention side of the equation and try to break that cycle and intervene at a time when you can more successfully prevent it from happening again,” said Tarr.

Tarr says, the Alaska Children’s Trust, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Mat-Su Health Foundation have expressed support for the bill. House Bill 233 has been referred to the House Education Committee, where Wasilla Representative Lynn Gattis is Chair. She says she believes the bill would be a step toward grappling with a difficult problem that is hurting Alaska’s kids.

“What we’re saying is, first of all, raise your hand and say Alaska’s got a problem. Number two: how are we going to fix that problem? Is this going to be a part of how we fix that problem?,” said Gattis.

Merryn says she hopes so.

“I was informed the high rates of sexual abuse in Alaska and I was shocked. Anyone that tells me that sexual abuse is not an issue where they live in their community, their living with blinders on,” said Merryn.

She says it’s time for communities to put kids first and take those blinders off, and she hopes Alaska will be the next state to commit to Erin’s Law. Merryn will be in anchorage talking about her law on Tuesday and Wednesday and in Juneau at the end of the week where she hopes to meet with Governor Sean Parnell and legislators.

Gattis says House Bill 233 could be up for consideration this week.

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